After the pandemic put a dampener on this year’s festival fun and frolics, there was more pressure on Reading and Leeds’ first line-up announcement than ever before. But August 31st left a sour taste in the mouth’s of music fans and critics alike, with accusations of misogyny and inequality taking centre stage. Gemma Cockrell reports.
Unlike the four headliners scheduled for this year’s cancelled festival, six headliners have been announced for 2021. These are to be spread, for the first time, across two main stages, which should make for a festival bigger, greater, and more exciting than ever before.
So, what could possibly have gone wrong? The headliners are Stormzy, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Post Malone, Disclosure, Liam Gallagher, and Queens of the Stone Age. They may appear to be a diverse range of artists – some indie, some rap, some rock, some electronic. But genre is where the diversity ends, as the bill boasts a severe absence of female performers.
Despite there being more headliners than in previous years, there are still no women taking centre stage; a confusing affair when female artists are amongst the most-streamed in the world right now. Billboard boasts mega-stars Billie Eilish, Cardi B, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Halsey amongst the top female artists of 2019.
Many arguments have been offered to justify such blatant variance however, including Reading and Leeds needing to maintain its traditional stance as a rock festival. And whilst there are some vastly talented womxn in this genre, including Sports Team, The Regrettes, PVRIS, and We Are The In Crowd, none of them have yet reached the proportions to headline one of the UK’s largest festivals. They also may not have the propensity to pull in festival-goers like bigger, more established male rock bands may do.
Organisers have demonstrated that they are fully capable of diversifying line-ups, and therefore have no excuse for failing to do so in regards to gender
However, in recent years organisers have began to diversify beyond this long-established norm and book hip-hop or rap artists in headline spots. They seem to understand that including both hip-hop and classic rock on the bill is the best way to please the festival’s long-term fans, whilst also catering to a newer and younger audience. Booking non-rock acts such as rappers is not a risk and doesn’t affect ticket sales – in fact, it is what music fans want in 2020. Organisers have therefore demonstrated that they are fully capable of diversifying line-ups, and have no excuse for failing to doing so in regards to gender.
The response from fans of the festival has been far from positive, and replies to the announcement on twitter full of angry fans, questioning why, yet again, the headlining spots have been given only to men. They seem less bothered about what genre those female artists may fall into, and more about fairness and equality. An understandable notion considering the festival’s last female headliner was Paramore, with lead singer Hayley Williams, in 2014 – and this is the only female fronted headliner they have hosted in the past 22 years.
With this much disquiet and frustration from fans and artists alike, it is difficult to see why organisers are failing to listen, especially as the issue has been raging for many years. A host of artists have also spoken up regarding the issue, including The 1975’s Matty Healy who announced that the band will no longer be playing at any festivals without a 50/50 line-up.
His statement highlights the vastness of the issue, as many other festivals have been shrouded by a similar veil of inequality. A severe lack of female artists have also been seen at pop and rap festivals, such as V and Wireless – demonstrating that this is clearly a bigger and deeper-rooted issue. A recent analysis of 600 headline appearances across fourteen major festivals, in fact, found that 8/10 slots were male. This same study also shows that a quarter of all headline slots were taken up by the same twenty acts.
There is no excuse not to book female artists when social media comments demonstrate this is exactly what many fans want to see
Festivals seem to have figured out which artists sell tickets, and therefore continued to book them again and again with no regard for the effect this is having on the music scene. Post Malone, for example, headlined Reading and Leeds in 2019, and is now returning to headline again in 2021. Bands like Muse, Kasabian, and The Killers have also dominated festival headline spots – which supports the argument that festivals book rock bands because they can rely on them to sell tickets.
Festival organisers should obviously book the acts that are going to sell the most tickets, because ticket sales are proof that these are the artists and bands that people want to see. However, there is no excuse not to book female artists when social media comments demonstrate this is exactly what many fans want to see, and that they are repeatedly being disappointed by the absence of women in headlining slots.
Because only one woman has been booked in the last twenty years, and that was now seven years ago, organisers will not know currently if booking a female headliner will directly influence ticket sales. This is not an excuse to just continue playing it safe and booking the same male artists however, because something has to give. The music industry is “skewed towards a male demographic”, Musician Emma-Lee Moss stated to the BBC, and we must keep talking about the issue in order to ensure festivals become more inclusive.
It is disheartening however, when such issues must be spoken about year after year, and by 2021 still no progress has been made. We can only hope that as more of Reading and Leeds’ line-up is released, more female acts will fill those stages, despite them not being headliners, and hopefully in future years we will finally see the equality that is so desperately needed.
Article image courtesy of Paramore via Facebook. Article image courtesy of @lucy_mccourt via Twitter. Article image courtesy of The 1975 via Facebook. Image license found here. No changes made to these images.
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